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Habitat for Humanity’s Newburgh Chapter Builds Homes for Local Families in Need

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Cerrone Washington, a tall, lanky, 34-year old Gap distribution center employee, dashes down the street — his street — on his morning jog. It’s almost done: his new home on East Parmenter Street in Newburgh, newly bucolic with immaculate flower-lined front yards, tidy porches, and freshly painted houses. This once was one of the worst streets in one of the region’s worst cities, where a few years ago, a stranger recalls getting a gun pulled on him for no other reason than that he didn’t belong there. Now, Washington can’t wait to move into the house he helped build. Once a thriving city of stately mansions with a bustling main street, Newburgh has been called many ugly things in more recent times. The town of 29,000 residents, put asunder by that wretched threesome of urban scourges — unemployment, drugs, and crime — was called a “lost town” by Esquire in 1989, and last year New York magazine dubbed it “the murder capital of New York.” And against these charges it stood defenseless, because grim and grimy Newburgh was those things.

Today, however, many Newburghers are joining up to create something antithetical to all that ugliness. Amid so much misery, a push for affordable home ownership by the Greater Newburgh chapter of Habitat for Humanity, the worldwide organization first founded in 1976, has reached critical mass.

builders association for the hudson valleyBuilding Blitz: In 2006, the Builders Association of the Hudson Valley (some of whom are shown at right) partnered with Newburgh Habitat for Humanity to build two homes, at 45-47 Chamber Street, in just five days

It began in 1999 when three local men got together and wondered what they could do to help a crumbling city. They started by buying three houses from the city for a dollar apiece. “We should have gotten change on them,” says David McTamaney, one of the Newburgh chapter founders, “because they were in terrible shape.” Ignoring questions about their sanity, the trio scrounged together the materials and tools needed to rehab the houses. “We begged,” says Bill Murphy, another founder. “We asked people we knew, friends, businesses, we did a walk-a-thon, a golf tournament — and it happened.” The houses were designed for minimal upkeep, finished, and sold to needy families. The blueprint was drawn. After those initial three houses, Newburgh’s Habitat chapter has either stripped down and rehabbed, or built from scratch, another 54 houses. (In early June, a Builders’ Blitz produced two houses in a mere five days.) More than 300 people — 200 of them children — now live in these structures, which have added more than $7 million to the city’s assessed property values and raised $250,000 in property taxes every year. Habitat’s Executive Director, Dr. Cathy Collins, hopes to complete the 100th house by 2016.

No other Habitat chapter in the area comes close — with 12 houses built since 1996, Ulster County is the second-most productive. This isn’t a reflection on Newburgh’s peers — who don’t have the advantage of a professional staff — but rather a product of its relentlessness. In response to the immense need, Newburgh’s Habitat has insisted on a breakneck pace. “The blight and devastation here is so concentrated that our effort to ameliorate that has to be concentrated as well so that there’s a momentum,” says Collins. “If we only build a few houses a year, it’s hard for people to see that change.”

And change is overdue. In 2000, long before the economy caved in on itself, Newburgh’s median household income lagged 60 percent behind the rest of Orange County. Now that 2.2 million subprime mortgages have failed or are about to fail nationally, bank loans are hard to come by. So Habitat offers an alternative.

before photoAbove, 45-47 Chambers street before construction. Below, the same lot (from another angle) on June 4

building a house

After buying up dilapidated houses or vacant lots, the organization deploys its volunteers, including the families who will live in the homes. To qualify, household income must be between 25 and 60 percent of the regional average — between $26,150 and $43,600 for a family of four. Some 1,800 Newburgh families fall within those parameters and are therefore eligible to apply. But not all of them demonstrate an ability to pay off a modest mortgage and a willingness to put in “sweat equity” of between 250 and 400 hours building the home, depending on the number of adults in the household. Once they are accepted, they set about accumulating their hours on various houses and are schooled in the budgetary skills of home ownership. When they near the end of this process, they’re assigned a home. After putting down $1,500 for it, they’ll take a 30-year, zero-interest mortgage of around $100,000, either directly from Habitat or a partner, and finally take ownership. Nationwide, less than two percent of the Habitat mortgages have defaulted.

Habitat takes a loss on virtually every house (the average total development cost of each one is close to $200,000), and moves on to the next property. So to enable a structural deficit, it relies on considerable fund-raising efforts. Its ReStore (located at 125 Washington Street) refurbishes donated furniture, light fixtures, and building materials before donating them to current projects or reselling them to generate profit for Habitat. Corporate sponsors also help out with some items; Whirlpool, for instance, contributes a free stove and fridge to every home nationwide. Architects and engineers donate their time too, while electricians use the Habitat properties as a training ground for their apprentices. In all, Habitat Newburgh has a core workforce of 200, supplemented with some 2,500 onetime volunteers, who are recruited through church groups, company team-building days, and other group activities every year.

The net impact on a neighborhood is considerable. “As we start taking the worst houses on the street and turning them into the nicest houses on the street,” says McTamaney, “other folks say, ‘You know what? Maybe I will replace my front porch steps.’ ” On a few occasions, a few houses turned by Habitat sparked a revival of the entire street.

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cordera-valencia familyThe Cordera-Valencia family are shown standing in front of their new front door

Jeanine Jennings, 35, a slight woman with fine features and a gentle smile, has never known stability. She grew up in Harlem and has bounced around since. She’s never owned a home, nor have her parents — or theirs. Jennings was turned down for a mortgage several times because of the student loans she racked up pursuing a degree in fashion management and marketing. She’s 20 hours away from completing her sweat equity. Soon, she and her son Jahmere will move into their own three-bedroom house, by far the biggest place she’ll have ever lived in. Jahmere, who sports a magnificent mane of braided hair, is 14, shy, and hopes to one day become a car mechanic. That seems a long way off in the cheap motel they’re living in now, having fled an apartment with mold and a dripping ceiling. A part-time barber and stylist at the West Point Military Academy, Jennings feels she’ll have done her job if she can provide a safe haven for Jahmere. “I’ll know I’ve done everything I could as a single parent to make sure he was taken care of,” she says.

It’s a searing Saturday morning when 70 people who have traveled from as far away as Connecticut split into teams to work on six different houses scattered around town. Mike Brooks is driving long screws into a deck he’s putting together. He’s a contractor from neighboring Wallkill and got involved with Habitat through his church. During the week, he works for Builtwell Construction, his family’s business. On Saturday he comes here to do the same work for free. “It’s a lot more appreciation,” he says. “A lot more sincerity.” He’s already put in 70-odd hours on this house. When he’s done, he says, “it’s just on to the next.”

buildersWith nearly all labor and materials donated by the 70 builders involved, the houses were finished on time and at minimal cost to Habitat. Above, builders work on the homes on June 7. Below, the nearly finished building, just one day later

nearly finished house

It’s that urgency that makes Habitat so successful in Newburgh, triggered by a powerful sense of community building. “A lot of people remember what this city was,” says Collins, “and they want it to go back to being that place.”

“You need no skills or prior knowledge,” adds Deirdre Glenn, the organization’s former executive director. “There’s this incredible sense that you can make a difference with your own hands.” Volunteers can help out every Wednesday and Saturday from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., and are welcomed individually or in groups of five or more. There is no commitment to put in more than one day’s work, but those who wish to do so must sign up either online or by calling ahead each time they volunteer.

Cornelia Gallagher is the house captain of a Women Build, one of the houses on which at least four-fifths of the labor was done by women. She was a stay-at-home mother and spent subsequent years babysitting her 18 grandchildren. Then they all went to school. “I had to reinvent myself. I didn’t want to play golf and I didn’t want to play tennis and I didn’t want to play bridge,” she says. “I just wanted to do something helpful.” Gallagher, just shy of 76, bought her husband a truck so he could help out too; during her 10 years of involvement, she has learned how to frame a wall, insulate it, and lay floors, too. The brick townhouse her team has rehabbed is a marvel, a piece of scrap wood polished back up to a high shine — reinvented.

When Cerrone Washington moves in with his father and fiancée, it will be the 10th house Habitat has brought back to life on East Parmenter Street. Other houses will soon be rehabbed and vacant spaces filled up with new construction to bring the tally to 24. Habitat hopes the holdout houses on Parmenter will eventually be swept up in the rush of renewal. Then the rest of the neighborhood. Then — maybe — even the entire city.

 

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